Why Twitter: Flight 1549 and viral news

February 4, 2009



Flight 1549 photo by Janis Krums

How did this photo of a plane in the Hudson river get from some guy's phone to my local newspaper?

I’d heard of Twitter. Taking a brief look, I concluded that it was just like Facebook status, except that there was nothing else. As a Facebook user, why would I want another service that duplicates one feature of something I already have? So I dismissed it as an irrelevant toy.

That was before US Airways Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River. I heard NPR interview a guy who was traveling on a ferry when the plane landed, and the ferry went in to help in the rescue. He pulled out his iPhone and snapped a photo. “I took one picture and put it on Twitter, and that one I guess blew up because it just exploded with everyone. That’s how people contacted me, actually, through Twitter. They’d message me, and then… it’s been pretty crazy with everyone, you know, a lot of interviews and whatnot. But I guess that’s one picture that gets circulated quite a bit.”

That caught my attention on a number of fronts. First, how do you put a photo onto Twitter? Then how did people find out? How did it spread? I went searching, and found the actual message he posted:

Click on the link, and you’ll see the photo, as I did. Ah, so there’s some sort of partner service that lets people post pictures, then include the link in a message. (In fact, the truth is deeper: By publishing an “application programming interface” or API, the folks at Twitter have opened up their service, allowing third parties to leverage it in new and creative ways.)

The following day, I took my daughter to her piano lesson. We don’t get a newspaper, but there was one at the piano teacher’s house. And there, on the front page banner, was that photo. Somehow, the photo Janis Krums took with his iPhone wound up on the front page of a major newspaper the following day. How did that happen? Clearly it went viral. As I look at the photo again today, I see it has been viewed 383,470 times. Not bad for a single shot through a junky window!

I began to wonder, “What is different about Twitter?”

What about you, did any particular event trigger your interest in Twitter? Let us know in the comments below.

Why Twitter? series:

  1. Why Twitter: Flight 1549 and viral news
  2. Why Twitter: Group participation on conference website
  3. Twitter vs. Facebook
  4. Twitter is not Facebook Lite

More Twitter resources:



Jon Reid

Posts Twitter Google+

As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

5 responses to Why Twitter: Flight 1549 and viral news

  1. wow! i hadn’t heard that story…awesome!!

    • Carrie, it made me think the interaction of technology and society got a fresh spin.

      • most definitely…i started twitter just like you…wondering what its real purpose was, but then i went to a conference in the fall and came to a similar realization…it’s all quite fascinating!
        i’ve read recently about a number of churches that are starting to have twitter services and they broadcast the tweets on the screen during the service…really interesting stuff!

  2. I live in DC and last week we had an earthquake. Most of us on the east coast aren’t experienced with this so when it happened I posted on FB asking if anyone else felt it. Within 5 mins I found out yes it was an earthquake and that it registered 5.8 on the richter scale and centered in central Virginia. These posts were also simultaneously posted on Twitter as well because a lot of people responding to me had their FB linked with their Twitter accounts. A few days later I signed up for Twitter (migidimick) and am trying to get my head around it. Your series is a great primer for this. Thank you.